ARTEK Recordings

Reviews of CD 4

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Hugh Aitken & Seattle Symphony

1. American Record Guide

Aitken: Aspen Concerto; Rameau Remembered; In Praise of Ockeghem

Elmar Oliveira, v; Scott Goff, fl; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz—Artek 4 (Allegro) 58 minutes

Born in 1924, Hugh Aitken was a student of Persichetti and Ward at Juilliard.   Not much of his music has been recorded—one disc (CRI 774, Nov/Dec 1998; 251) was devoted to some chamber works, and an odd piece here and there sometimes turned up in a collection.   That’s about it—so this new Artek disc of three orchestral works is a big addition to the composer’s discography.

            Aitken’s 1989 Aspen Concerto for violin and string orchestra is written in an idiom that might be described as “modern international neoclassicism”.   This three-movement concerto displays kinships with (among many others) Piston, Roussel, Casella, Lopatnikoff, and both Bloch and Stravinsky.   It’s a well-put-together but sometimes generic-sounding piece that doesn’t always project a strong sense of the composer’s individuality.   I was much taken by the violin writing, with its expressive chromatic touches and unexpected disjunctions, but less impressed with the string orchestral accompaniment that sometimes resorted to Stravinskian clichés (glaring, for one example, in the work’s conclusion).   On the other hand, there is much to admire in the work; the central tranquillo, a spacious and contemplative aria, is really quite beautiful.

            Rameau Remembered is a suite of ten or so movements for flute and orchestra based on tunes from Rameau’s operas and ballets.   Some of the music is simply transcribed, other sections subjected (as the composer puts it) to “unexpected harmonic or rhythmic turns”.   In Praise of Ockeghem is a single-movement, 12-minute polyphonic fantasy for string orchestra that incorporates fragments of the Flemish composer’s music and (more or less) mimics his manner.   Both of these works are wan and perfunctory, and both suffer by comparison with far-more-effective archetypes:   Rameau Remembered has little of the imagination or vitality of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, while In Praise of Ockeghem is stodgy and turgid next to Charles Wuorinen’s joyous reworkings of 15th Century music in his Bearbeitungen uber das Glogauer Liederbuch on Music and Arts 800 (July/Aug 1994).

            As might be expected from the distinguished roster of participants, I have no complaints about the performances; Oliveira in particular is splendid, projecting nobility and thoughtfulness with commanding authority.   His superb tonal qualities are captured with naturalness and clarity in the excellent recording of the Concerto, though the other two pieces are not as well recorded, sounding boxy and cramped.   Could they have been recorded in a different venue?   The notes don’t say.   They also neglect to include Aitken’s year of birth, and mislabel the Aspen Conerto   as scored for violin and orchestra (rather than string orchestra).   To add insult to injury, Aitken’s descriptions of his music are larded with egregiously misspelled pronouns that hold him (or his proof0reader up for ridicule.   Slovenly writing like this is depressing:   educated people should present themselves with more care—and more dignity.

Despite my carping, the Aspen Concerto is well served in this recording—and worth hearing, too, especially the slow movement.   LEHMAN


Aitken: Aspen Concerto; Rameau Remembered; In Praise of Ockeghem

Elmar Oliveira, v; Scott Goff, fl; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz—Artek 4 (Allegro) 58 minutes

              Hugh Aitken was born in 1924 and studied with Bernard Wagenaar, Vincent Persichetti, and Robert Ward.   He writes in a conservative, Neoclassical style that at times, especially in its often rich polyphonic texture, is reminiscent of Hindemith, although Aitken is decidedly more lyrical.   These qualities are most apparent in the Violin Concerto, a fine, solidly crafted work that emphasizes line and development more than virtuosity.   The slow movement, a songlike meditation with a quiet, lovely ending, is particularly attractive.   Rameau Remembered is a five-movement arrangement and rearrangement of some airs and dances borrowed primarily from Rameau’s Castor and Pollux.   The relationship between Aitken and Rameau in this work is not unlike that of Stravinsky and Pergolesi (and others) in Pulcinella.   Sections of the original works emerge largely untouched in some places, while elsewhere the materials are reworked or juxtaposed in a way that casts them in a new and interesting light.   The work is entertaining, imaginative, and often humorous.   Aitken’s contrapuntal skills are again in the forefront in his In Praise of Ockeghem from 1977.   Here the strings weave a sometimes dense texture, with frequent shifts of tempo relationships found in Ockeghem’s Masses.

              The performances are solid and committed.   Oliveira is impressive in the Violin Concerto, playing with an ease and fluidity that bring out the buoyant rhythms of the opening and the long lines of the slow movement.   The recorded sound is good, even though there are times when it seems slightly cramped.   No matter.   This is a composer whose music is diverting, inventive, and well worth hearing.   Gerard Schwarz is once again to be commended and thanked for his services to American music.   Richard Burke



3. The Strad

Strad Selection *Concerto disc

Brahms Violin ConcertoSaint-Saens Violin Concerto no. 3 Elmar Oliveira (violin); Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz (conductor) Artek AR-0003-2

Aitken Aspen Concerto:Rameau Remembered; In Praise of Ockeghem; Elmar Oliveira (violin); Scott Goff (flute); Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz (conductor) Artek AR-0004-2


A true aristocrat of the violin, Elmar Oliveira plays with a relatively small-scale, jeweled tone that recalls the like of Christian Ferras and Wolfgang Schneiderhan.   Yet his impassioned artistry imbues even the most familiar of phrases with a warmth and thrilling inevitability that recalls Isaac Stern in his heyday.   Purity is the watchword here, with even the most indomitable passages in the Brahms Concerto emerging with a litheness and tonal transparency to set the ears tingling.   Like Nathan Milstein he sustains amplitude by the subtlest use of extended bow strokes rather than merely applying more pressure; as a result there are remarkably few ‘noises off’ even when he is going flat out.   This is the kind of playing that inspires concentrated listening simply because of its fascination as pure sound, even if some may prefer a more overt emotional response to Brahms’s physically imposing writing.

              Oliveira comes out with all guns blazing for the opening of the Saint-Saens.   I cannot recall having heard this fabulous work’s many exquisite turns of phrase voiced so ravishingly (nor so immaculately tuned) since Henryk Szeryng’s 1969 recording for Philips.   The finale’s pyrotechnics are thrown off with nonchalant panache, although once again it’s the lyrical moments that linger longest in the memory.   The recording is well balanced (perhaps a shade bass-light), with the soloist begullingly caught by the microphones.

              Oliveira is as renowned for his championing of contemporary scores as for his mastery of the classics.   No surprise, then, to find him tackling a concerto just ten years old and originally written for Joseph Swenson.   Hugh Aitken recently retired from William Paterson Unicersity in New Jersey following 20 years at the Julliard School.   The three-movement Aspen Concerto’s brand of ‘fourthsy’ neo-Classicism is redolent of Hendmith with a smattering of Bartok thrown in for good measure.   It is skillfully crafted music, which Oliveira plays with great beauty of tone and moving intensity.   Rameau Remembered is, as its title suggests, an imaginative rethink of French Baroque territory in which fragments dislocated from a bygone age are redressed in contemporary garb.   In Praise of Ockeghem for string orchestra takes the terms of reference back still further, although this is less a pastiche than a moving homage.   Crystal-clear recording; gripping performances.   Julian Haylock


4. Gramophone

Aitken Aspen Concerto, In praise of Ockeghem

Rameau Remembered

Scott Goff, flute; Elmar Oliveira, violin; Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwartz

Artek AR-0004-2 (68 minutes:DDD)


Strong advocacy for Aitken in a recording that highlights his music’s stylistic variety in strongly sympathetic performances.


I am sure that many listeners, randomly hearing on the radio the slow movement of Hugh Aitken’s Aspen Concerto, would rush to the nearest record shop in search of it.   It is a grave passacaglia, rising to a beautiful, sober eloquence at the soloist’s first entrance, and again after the violin has exchanged confidences with string soloists from the orchestra, when the passacaglia resumes.   Just as many listeners, I am almost equally sure, would have been put off if I had begun this review by saying, quite truthfully, that Aitken sounds like (though he wasn’t) a pupil of Hindemith (and a talented one:   the Concerto’s first movement has much of the older composer’s vigour and strength), but a pupil of Hindemith who has spent most of his life teaching music (at the Juilliard School and William Paterson University, New Jersey) in the conviction that ‘our taste, imagination and intuition have all been shaped and coloured by the music we have grown up with…I have always rejoiced in and drawn strength from the knowledge that I was part of an ongoing, essentially social enterprise.’


The other two works here are both ‘after’ composers that Aitken either grew up with or to whom he feels a close affinity.   In Rameau Remembered he takes pieces by Rameau and sometimes arranges them relatively ‘straight’, sometimes with quirky harmonic and rhythmic dislocations.   A prelude from Casto et Pollux sounds richly Respighian, while the loure from Les Indes galantes again recalls Hindemith quite strongly.   There are strange moments of stasis where a harmony seems to be resolving but doesn’t.   In Praise of Ockeghem is an ‘original’ work containing several quotations from the object of Aitken’s homage, and here the effect, rather touchingly, is of a sonorous contrapuntal idiom in which Hendemith and Ockeghem might both feel at home.


For my taste the Concerto’s finale is on the fitful side (though with a charming pastoral interlude), and both the other pieces, attractive though they are, contain passages which recall the way ‘early music’ sounded before we all learned about authenticity.   But Aitken’s is a likeable and individual voice.   Gerard Schwarz conducts his former teacher’s music with great affection, Elmar Oliveira is a formidable soloist in the Aspen Concerto, Scott Goff plays with a vibrato more redolent of our century than Rameau’s.   The recordings are excellent, but both soloists are a little too close.   Michael Oliver


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